The Daily Astonishment

Mary Oliver wrote: “Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” If nothing else, this well-loved verse gives purpose to the day. What astonishments can I find to tell about?

How about my recent visit to Houston for the Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo (FNCE): 8,000 dietitians. 400+ exhibitors. Astonishing number of protein bar brands.

This is an annual event that brings together members of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for 3 days of professional development, continuing education, hobnobbing, awards, etc., allowing for frequent visits to the accompanying huge trade show. I was there with the Food and Wellness Group, which was introducing The Colors of Health–a program designed to increase fruit and vegetable consumption. (see the preview here)

As you might expect, most booths attempt to attract visitors by giving away stuff–mostly product samples, shopping bags, and tons of brochures, flyers and other collateral material. Given the audience, you would expect the focus to be on eating healthy, right?

Coca Cola booth at the Food & Nutrition Expo: "Lots of choices, calories optional"
Coca Cola booth at the Food & Nutrition Expo: “Lots of choices, calories optional”

Astonishment #1: The Food and Nutrition Expo’s major sponsors include Coca Cola and Pepsico, among other corporate behemoths. They may have been promoting their anti-hunger foundations or their vitamin waters…but really?

Astonishment #2: Monsanto had a booth. Too bad it wasn’t a dunking booth.

Astonishment #3: There must have been at least 10-15 different protein/breakfast/energy bar brands there. Probably to keep the dietitians awake between presentations.

Astonishment #4: There was plenty of chocolate and yogurt to be had. Let’s face it, these are two very super superfoods.

These were the top four astonishments during my trip to FNCE. Also I should note that Houston has an enormous convention center, but that’s not astonishing, given that it’s Texas.

If I pay attention, I will surely have more astonishing things to tell about soon.

Rituals of Summer

I’d like to think a summer weekend in Montreal could become an annual tradition. We’ve done it twice now…it could happen.  In addition to the obvious appeal of this beautiful city, there are several compelling attractions: The M Machine and The Tailor.

TMM_327x327_Now I. The M Machine is an electronic music group from San Francisco started by three guys, one being our son Ben. When they play in our vicinity, David and I make the effort to see them. For the past couple of summers, The M Machine has given us a good excuse to drive 6 hours north for a weekend in Montreal.

Just being in Montreal is a treat for the senses: the fabulous food, the festivals, the fun atmosphere, the French. And when you add an evening at Le Belmont with The M Machine, it’s sensory overload. Mind you, the boys took the stage at 1:45 AM and played until 3 AM, so my senses might have been a bit dulled by fatigue, but here’s the five-senses lowdown.

  •  Hearing: A billion decibels (a little exaggerated maybe, but that’s what it felt like–and I wore my ear plugs all night) of ear-splitting electronic dance music.
  •  Seeing: An amazing, gorgeous video production synchronized to the songs and projected on screen, plus strobe lights and an all-around visual workout.
  •  Smelling: Smoky. Sweaty. Not that bad.
  •  Feeling: Bass so low and loud that it resonates in the gut as it shakes your teeth loose. (Sound like fun?)
  •  Tasting: A few sips of beer–all I could stomach at that hour

The crowd loved it and a good time was had by all. Part of the fun of going to an M Machine show is the ritual of hanging out in the “green room” with Ben and the other 2 M’s, Andy and Eric. There is a lot of respect for parents who show up for electronic music gigs at 1:45 in the morning.  More than one fan came up to us after the Montreal show to laud our “parental credentials.”

AlbertoShopII. The Tailor. His name is Alberto Enr and his shop is in the hip Plateau neighborhood of Montreal.  David discovered Alberto last summer, a hot tip from a shirt seller across the street. Alberto’s workshop is in the back of his son’s bijou (jewelry) store.  Presumably, years ago, the tailor shop took up the whole space…but times have changed.

Last year, Alberto performed excellent same-day hemming services on two, just-purchased shirts, for a very reasonable price. This year, David brought two old shirts to Alberto for hemming. He had gone for months wearing these too-long shirts, just dreaming of the day when he could take them to Alberto in Montreal.

Six hours north to find a good tailor?  We’ll chalk it up to a love of ritual. Alberto doesn’t speak much English, so the pantomime antics of hemming details are fun to watch. His shop opened at 11, and even though he had a stack of other pending items on the counter, he agreed to have the shirts ready for pick up by 2 PM.

L'Avenue du PlateauPerfect. We walked for hours through Parc du Mont-Royal, had a great late brunch at L’Avenue (destined for ritualdom), and made it back to Alberto’s to pick up the beautifully hemmed shirts.

We do the tourist things in Montreal, too. But I’ve come to understand that destinations become special when you invent your own small rituals, make your own little discoveries, and find your own unique reasons to return. If and when The M Machine plays Montreal next summer, we’ll be back for the weekend.

Six hours north…

If you want to get away, you can drive south from Portland, ME and be in the Big Apple in just under 6 hours. Or, you can drive north and be in Montreal in just under 6 hours. Go north! It’s a foreign country and a lot cheaper and quicker to get to than France.

They speak a different language, they use a different currency (worth slightly more than ours last I checked) and the food is magnifique.  Like Portland, they have an Old Port…only it’s really old and really impressive.  So I say, go north!

Although you might want to bone up on your high school French first, if for no other reason than to be able to read the traffic signs. We were there on the weekend of Quebec’s National Holiday, a week before the Montreal International Jazz Festival. There were many signs, related to parade routes, parking bans… you name it…we couldn’t read it.

Here are the consequences of not being able to read the fine print on signs in French:

1. Within 10 minutes of parking our car right across from our auberge, we had a ticket: $55 CAN.  (The little red square with the number in it means residents only)

2. After parking overnight in a large facility on one of the quays, we returned to pick up our car and it was nowhere to be found. Stolen? Towed? Apparently we had missed the fine print on the parking regulations that explicitly stated no overnight parking on June 23rd.  Security for a cruise ship or something. The security folks did help us find the car –– just a warning this time.

3. After traversing the city on Sunday morning to find the Botanical Gardens (worth the trip), we couldn’t seem to get out of Montreal.  It being the Fete Nationale, the main routes were blocked off for parades, traffic was completely tied up…and we would have known all this if we could have read the little signs along Rue Sherbrooke.

But of course, none of this really dampened our enjoyment of La Belle Province.  Montreal is a great city and an easy road trip. We should all go north more often. In fact, the only truly irritating part of the trip was the hour wait at the US border going back home. There were no signs in any language warning us about that.

A tourist on my own turf

We should all act like strangers in familiar territory now and then. I tried it the other day when I joined a Maine Foodie Tour. It was a 2-½ hour culinary walking tour around Portland, eating as you go. A little history, a little lore, and a lot of foodie facts.

I loved it, but (and I’m a little ashamed to admit this) it took me awhile to loosen up and have fun.  Here’s why:  I had to keep my mouth shut.

My natural inclination was to make sure everyone in the group knew that I knew just as much as the tour guide. (Fat chance!) Out of courtesy, I refrained from pointing out all the really hot foodie spots she was bypassing (Hugo’s! Bard Coffee! Standard Baking!) and instead, I listened. And that’s when it got good.

By listening, I found out why Wharf Street is called Wharf Street, so far from the wharves. And where the lobsterman statue came from. And which Maine-made cheeses took first prize in national competitions (City of Ships, Hahn’s End). And how you measure a Maine lobster to make sure it’s a legal catch. I looked through my familiar surroundings through stranger’s eyes and liked what I saw (and really liked what I ate). And let’s face it, if you stopped at every foodie spot in Portland, it would take 24 hours, not 2 ½.

So I recommend it. Any tour will do…Duck Boat anyone?  But if you like food (capped off with a Whoopie Pie from Two Fat Cats), the Maine Foodie Tour has the advantage of letting you walk it off.